Once again, the vendors of Georgetown are in the news. But for the wrong reasons. Urban vending, however is not unique to Guyana but is a prominent feature in the development of all cities, especially in the third world – Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. The reasons are not hard to find – high unemployment, especially for women, and the comparative low entry cost for vending.
As all comparative studies show, vendors provide easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public spaces. They sell everything from fresh vegetables to prepared foods, from building materials to garments and crafts, from consumer electronics to auto repairs to haircuts. Most street vendors provide the main source of income for their households, bringing food to their families and paying school fees for their children.
Moreover, they have strong linkages to the formal economy since most source the goods they sell from formal enterprises like garment and shoe importers. Most of the customers of vendors also work in formal jobs. The vendors also provide funds to cities through sprees and licences and employment to transport providers. They also add vibrancy to urban landscapes.
In Guyana, however, vendors have been used as political pawns rather than regularising their activities so that they become a recognised part of the economy. Vending has always been a feature of Georgetown since the abolition of slavery and the channeling of the freed slaves into cities to provide cheap labour for urban enterprises. The phenomenon exploded during the seventies as the economy collapsed because of the socialist policies of the PNC government.
Since the vendors were overwhelmingly female African-Guyanese women, the PNC which counted on that community for political support permitted vending on the pavements in front of established businesses and public spaces. Georgetown changed from being a quiet, placid town into a congested bustling and rambunctious one – especially at night in certain areas such as the Stabroek Market square whips also serves as a major hub for buses.
Since that time, efforts to regularise vendors have been used as political fodder in a standoff between City Hall and the Central Government. During the PPP regime, those efforts – as recent as the year before the last election – were labelled as “vindictive” moves to deny the vendors a livelihood, by Mayor Hamilton Green and City Hall. The vendors became one of the chief constituency mobilised by Mayor Green in his two-decade battle against the PPP.
It is therefore not surprising that the present government’s effort to regularise vending only occurred at this time because of its desire to show the hordes of foreign based Guyanese that are expected to visit for the Independence Jubilee celebrations later this month. And it is also not surprising that the vendors are reacting with anger at their rushed displacement after, as they pointed out vociferously, they helped elect this government to office.
But the government should use this “necessity” to take control over vending in Georgetown and transform it into the vibrant sector of the economy that it can be, without killing regular businesses and public spaces. And we do not have to reinvent the wheel: countries like India have passed comprehensive legislation to protect vendors.
Some cities like Bangkok have worked with street vendors’ organizations to formulate innovative policies, programmes and practices that make vending a thing of beauty. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.